How to Write Different Kinds of Violence

I don’t read a lot of fiction these days. My tastes run towards action-packed thrillers, and as I discussed elsewhere, many writers have no idea how to write authentic action scenes. Outside the thriller genre, I can only name a small handful of writers who can instill in action sequences the ring of truth.

In a certain cyberpunk/space opera novel, the protagonist, a former Special Operations type turned private detective, encounters a thug on the streets. The thug woofs a challenge. The protagonist says, “Back off!” To underscore his point, he unleashes a series of strikes at the air, showing how he can kill the thug with his bare hands.

I can’t tell you how that encounter ends, because that was the point I closed the book — permanently.

Contrast this to Chapter 3 of Barry Eisler’s The Detachment. Here, protagonist John Rain discovers he is being tailed. Rain uses stealth and surprise to turn the tables, eliminating the threats.

That encounter had the ring of truth. But pay attention also to the flashback in the middle of the chapter, in which Rain describes how he dealt with a bully. Between the ambush and the flashback, Eisler elucidates the principles of violence authors should aspire to capture in their own work.

Types of Violence

Violence is an instrument to achieve a goal. From this perspective, there are two kinds of violence: social violence and asocial violence. The former is for status and image, the latter is for resources.

The cyberpunk example is classic social violence. By dancing his hands in the air protagonist hopes to impress the thug and establish dominance. By contrast, John Rain employed asocial violence to defend himself: the resource in question is Rain’s life.

Asocial and social violence have vastly different stakes and different goals. The resulting manifestation would naturally be vastly different.

The Monkey Dance

Imagine a pair of monkeys sizing up each other. They puff their chests and spread their arms, making themselves look bigger. Waddling up to each other, they hoot and shriek and gesticulate. At some point, one of three things happen.

*One of them submits and leaves
*One of them attacks, leading to a scuffle
*A higher status monkey breaks up the encounter

Humans behave in remarkably similar ways, which is where Rory Miller coined the termMonkey Dance. In his book Meditations on Violence, Miller describes it as a ritual with predictable steps. In American culture, it goes like this.

  1. Make eye contact with a hard stare
  2. Issue a verbal challenge, i.e. “What are you looking at?”
  3. Close the distance to bad breath range, sometimes ending in a chest bump
  4. Poke or push to the chest
  5. Punch

Here we see a progression of violence. First someone initiates the challenge and establishes status. As he closes, he continues mouthing off to psychologically prepare himself and to provoke the other guy into joining the monkey dance. Once in range, the chest bump and push serve as stepping stones, acclimatising the challenger to laying hands on the other person — and, if the challenger were skilled enough, to allow him to gauge the distance. When the blood is up and he is committed, he throws a punch, and the fight breaks out.

The point of a monkey dance is to achieve status, not usually to take a life. Monkey dances are not usually lethal by design. People committed to the dance do not usually strike from ambush, call for help, pull weapons midway, use deadly strikes or finish off the loser. Crippling injuries or deaths are usually accidental. If a target is down, the challenger usuallywon’t stomp the target into paste. On the other hand, a challenger would gladly knock out a target with a punch…and the target may fall on a hard surface and break his neck. But more often than not, the loser usually gets to walk away.

The same dynamic applies even where weapons are involved. In honour duels, the point is not to kill the other party — it’s to prove both parties’ bravery. Most duels, especially in the West, tended to be fought to first blood, not to the death. After scoring first blood, both sides can walk away with their honour satisfied: the winner has proven his skill at arms while the loser has shown that he is willing to risk life and limb. Note that this does not apply to blood feuds settled through duels, or to cultures where even the slightest insult must be answered with deadly force.

This concept, however, breaks down for the Group Monkey Dance. This is another dominance game, in which members of a group compete for status and prove their loyalty to the group by showing how vicious they can be to an outsider.

This is the gang recruit brutalising an innocent person to the cheers of his new crew. The knockout game, the happy slap, the king hit. At the far end, it is the Imperial Japanese soldier bayoneting a prisoner, a squad of Waffen-SS gang-raping a civilian, the concentration camp guards competing to kill the most number of Jews in the shortest time.

The Monkey Dance is a non-lethal ritual to puff up the challenger. The Group Monkey Dance reinforces group loyalty through atrocity. Predatory violence is something else altogether.

The Predator

Asocial violence is about attaining resources. The victim is seen as an obstacle, an enabler or the objective. Think of it as an armed guard protecting a bank vault, the manager who holds the key to the vault, or the CEO whose high-profile assassination will terrorise the people.

The attack is a premeditated act of violence that enables the aggressor to take what he wants with minimal risk to himself. It will not be a fight in which both sides have a chance to exchange blows. It is not a contest with rules and referees. If weapons are available, they will be used. If killing is required, so be it.

Versus ritualistic monkey dancing, predatory violence is remarkably simple. It boils down to this: get close and unleash hell.

There are two main ways to get close. The first is to use the terrain to conceal yourself and set up an ambush. The second is to charm the target until you are as close as you can, then strike.

Simple. Brutal. Effective.

Implications for Writers

To write violence effectively, you need to know four things.

  1. What do the parties involved want?
  2. What is their background with violence?
  3. What skills, resources, advantages and disadvantages do they possess?
  4. What does their environment allow them to do and prevent them from doing, and what are their culture’s rules of violence?

Let’s go back to the cyberpunk example. The protagonist wants to move on with his investigation and walk away alive, while the thug wants to inflate his ego. The protagonist is former military Spec Ops, the thug is a street fighter. The protagonist has the benefit of decades of training and combat experience, while the thug knows the terrain and is accustomed to dealing with innocents. They are on a wide, empty street, with no opportunities for cover or concealment, and Western monkey dancing rules are in effect.

With this in mind, when the encounter begins, the easiest thing to do is for the protagonist to hold up his hands, back up and say, “Sorry, bro. It’s been a long day and I’m just spacing out. I’ll be leaving now, okay?”

The protagonist is ex-military with extensive experience in undercover operations. If neutralising the thug won’t help him achieve his goals, why would he do it? Better to keep a low profile and walk away.

But let’s say the thug presses on anyway. He’s itching for a fight, and his friends behind him are egging him on.

“Not so fast, bro,” he says. “You’re on our turf now. You gotta pay the tax.”

The thug’s friends fan out, getting ready to cut the protagonist off. Here, we see the beginnings of a Group Monkey Dance, coupled with the opportunity for asocial violence — i.e. to get the protagonist’s wallet. Social and asocial violence aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, and opportunities for one or the other may emerge as events unfold.

How do you handle the situation? Here’s an example:

The detective halts, his hands still raised.

“Sorry, man, I didn’t know this was your turf. But I don’t have anything in my wallet, ‘kay? If that’s fine with you, I’m leaving, okay?”

The thug smirks and steps up.

“Can’t pay the tax? Then we’ll just take it in–”

The detective jabs the thug’s eyes. The thug howls and rears back. The detective slams a V-hand strike into his exposed throat and drives his knee into his groin. The thug falls, his voice fading into a strange click-click-click. The detective lifts his foot and axe-kicks him in the head.

The other criminals are rooted to the spot. The detective coolly regards them.

“Your friend needs a hospital.”

He walks away, leaving the bad guys to their fate.

In this case, the detective short-circuits social violence with asocial violence. He lures in the thug with deceptive dialogue, strikes when he is distracted, and escalates beyond the point where the thugs are mentally prepared for. This causes the thugs to freeze as they try to process the new circumstances. He gives the gangsters a face-saving exit and quickly leaves before they can recover.

Note that the tactics involved would be much different if the protagonist were a civilian with no martial background. Instead of luring the bad guy in, the best approach would be to turn and sprint to safety. It’s an open street; there’s nothing stopping him from escaping if he’s fit enough.

Social violence is about status and image. Asocial violence is about quickly, efficiently and safely obtaining resources. To win, either refuse the fight by leaving the scene, or overwhelm the other guy before he can do the same unto you.

The first step to writing authentic action scenes is to know what kind of violence you’re writing about, and how well your characters fare and fit in those situations. Interesting things happen when characters are forced to overcome overwhelming force, navigate different cultures, or when they bring different violence paradigms to play. A battle-hardened warrior may scorn the idea of duels to first blood, or his culture may not even recognise such things, so whenever he fights someone it is always a duel to the death. A tipsy civilian may quickly find himself out of his depth after insulting a group of off-duty Marines. And so on.

Further Reading

The above is drawn heavily from Miller’s Meditations on Violence. However, it is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Violence is a massive subject that no one person can cover in a single post. For further reading, look up Marc MacYoung, Rory Miller, Lawrence A Kane, Kris Wilder, Ed Calderon (aka Edpoint) and Jin Roh (the blogger). In particular, I recommend No Nonsense Self Defense and the Conflict Communications Group. To see how violence paradigms are applied in fiction, I recommend Barry Eisler, Marcus Wynne and Loren Christensen.

Writing is about truth. Writing violence is about reflecting the truth of violence. If your fiction involves realistic violence, doing the research pays handsome dividends.

(First published on Steemit.com)


Tired Tropes: the Tsundere

Welcome to Tired Tropes, in which I dissect popular tropes I find annoying. While tropes are tools, they can be overused or done badly, and Tired Tropes are especially gregarious examples of them. Here, I take on the tsundere.

The tsundere is a staple of Japanese media. She—for the overwhelming majority of tsunderes are female—is defined by switching between harsh (‘tsun’) and lovestruck (‘dere’) personalities, due to how she feels towards a love interest and her reaction to having these feelings. While Tropes are Not Bad, it takes great skill to properly utilise tsundere archetype, and many, many, many creators have failed to do it properly.

When people think tsunderes they think Type A tsunderes: harsh and aloof as her default setting, but sweet or vulnerable towards her love interest…eventually. And by ‘harsh’ I mean abusive. Examples abound in media: Louise Francoise le Blanc de la Valliere from Zero no Tsukaima, Ayatsuji Tsukasa of Amagami, Kirisaki Chitoge in Nisekoi, and so on.

Type B tsunderes, who have dere as their default setting, are also abound, but I haven’t encountered (too many) problems with their portrayals. This post will focus exclusively on the ultra-Type A tsunderes: the abusive types.

In the real world, abuse has consequences. It inflicts horrendous psychological damage on the victim over time. More assertive individuals would simply refuse to have anything to do with such people, or turn to the authorities (or arrest them, if they are the authorities). In fiction, for some reason, abuse is rewarded with love.

Louise physically and emotionally abuses Hiraga Saito throughout the entire series, including berating him, whipping him and punishing him whenever she gets jealous of another girl who talks to him—and they become the official couple. Ayatsuji blackmails Tachibana Junichi into helping her by threatening to accuse him of sexual assault when he accidentally picks up her diary—and in her route she becomes his lover. Kirisaki Chitoge is abusive, haughty and violent towards Ichijou Raku, especially in the early chapters—and he falls for her anyway.

Writing is about truth. Tropes are a tool to point the reader towards truth. And the truth of the world is that if a woman were arrogant, abrasive, manipulative and outright violent towards anyone, she is not girlfriend or wife material. This is a clear indicator of intimate partner violence—better known as domestic violence. And yet the relationships described above are portrayed as loving relationships.

Consider what would happen if the gender roles were flipped: if male tsunderes abuse their female love interests. There is no expectation that the relationship would end well. Yet this portrayal of female tsunderes endures. After all, Abuse is Okay if it’s Female on Male.

This is not to say that the tsundere archetype should be abandoned, rather that it should be deployed with skill.

Instead of playing abuse for laughs, especially in a serious work of fiction, it should be explored to the bitter end. Unflinchingly explore the consequences of being around someone who switches between harsh and sweet at the drop of a hat. The result is confusion, a tendency to walk on eggshells around her, and a dysfunctional relationship. More assertive characters will stand up and put a stop to such nonsense, or ruthlessly cut out these people from their lives.

If the tone of the story is comedic or light-hearted, downplay the violence or abuse to the point where it won’t actually harm anyone. Imagine the female lightly punching a male’s arm or softly bouncing her fists against his chest without actually hurting him, or limiting the use of insults and retorts. This provides insight into her character without crossing the line. Or, as in the case of Kaze no Stigma, the female may be lashing out at the male with full force, while the male easily avoids or no-sells the attack with boredom or amused mastery. In either event, it is immediately clear that what happens isn’t abuse, as it doesn’t actually affect the target in any meaningful way.

If the male does have a background in martial arts and/or a profession that requires the regular use of force (soldier, mercenary, police, etc.), show the real-world results of attempting to abuse that person. Force will be met with force, dodged or redirected. These are survival mechanisms, so deeply ingrained that they cannot be turned off so easily. Such people will also have no tolerance for abuse: either the tsundere shapes up or is dropped.


An example of the Type A tsundere romance done right is Steins;Gate. Makise Kurisu is a classic Type A tsundere, who developed her acerbic tongue after being looked down on for being the youngest scientist in her lab. Okabe Rintarou roleplays a mad scientist all the time, to the point where nearly everyone thinks he acts like a twelve-year-old, and also displays classic tsundere characteristics. Unlike other media, the character dynamic is both hilarious and realistic, thanks to the way it’s handled.

While Makise and Okabe bicker over literally anything, their interactions showcase both chemistry and growing respect for each other. Makise maintains her tsun side by talking in scientific terms when annoyed, acting cynically towards Okabe, and (in the Japanese version) by using rude forms of address, while reserving her ultra-tsun moments for times when it’s justified—such as reacting to a perverted joke about her, usually with a sharp remark. And she doesn’t abuse people who don’t annoy her, like Shiina Mayuri. Okabe, in turn, feeds off her energy, responding with aplomb and genuinely hilarious comebacks.

Most importantly, when the chips are down and push comes to shove, Makise drops the tsundere act. She demonstrates her brilliance as a scientist, supports Okabe through difficult situations, and acts as a loyal member of his lab team. In this sense, Makise is more than just a two-dimensional character; she is a complete character who drives the story. And in the end, she (mostly) drops the tsun act and acts more affectionately towards Okabe.

Looking at Steins;Gate we see an instance of effectively deploying a Type A tsundere without alienating the audience. She doesn’t go overboard with her harshness, or when she does it’s met with resistance. She shows character development over time instead of flipflopping back and forth. Most of all, she is more than just an archetype: she contributes meaningfully to the story, becoming more than just a set of clichéd behaviours.

The tsundere archetype in of itself is not bad. But when poorly handled, it is a portrayal of female abuse and generates violent dissonance with the truth of the world. Properly crafting a Type A tsundere requires careful calibration of her character, showing her harshness without crossing the line into unchecked abuse, while giving her opportunities to be more than just a cliche.


Why I Avoid Reading Violence in Fiction

I’m not a pacifist. But I must confess: in the vast majority of manga I read these days, I skip most depictions of violence. In books, if I encounter an action scene that doesn’t make sense, I just dump the book altogether.

Fiction requires suspension of disbelief, and when a sequence triggers disbelief, then the story has failed. There are plenty of stories out there with excellent characters, tight plotting and sharp dialogue, but they all fail at the first punch. Here’s why.


Violence is not about showing off your character’s skills

In a certain popular urban fantasy series, the first chapter in the first book has the protagonist interviewing an informant. The informant mouths off to her, so she punishes him by tossing him out the window. The protagonist justifies this by saying that said informant is a supernatural creature and would survive the fall.

Being a jerk is not a reason to throw someone out the window. Sure, the informant would walk away with nothing but bruises, but why would the informant come back to her? Why won’t he take his business elsewhere, or sell her to her enemies? He has no loyalties; why would he care about her? Why would he act like a jerk if she’s a known loose cannon? Why does she think physically abusing the only person in town who can help her with her job is a smart move?

From this perspective, it’s clear that the scene does not make sense. It exists only to have the writer the character as yet another stock Badass Female Protagonist.

But being a heavy hitter is not about showing off. It’s not about going overboard on idiots, taking every opportunity to pick a fight or use the flashiest moves. It’s about being so skilled you don’t have to — at least until there’s a compelling reason to.

Here’s an anecdote from Kelly McCann, a combatives instructor, from Combatives for Street Survival: Volume 1.

In the early 1990s, McCann visited a drug store to stock up on first aid supplies. At the time, he was carrying a Glock 27 in his waistband. As he paid for his purchases, 3 men entered and lined up behind him. One of them reached to grab something, noticed McCann’s cash on the counter, then retracted his hand. As McCann left, the men followed him out without buying anything. McCann realised at that point that the men were working up to mug him.Or worse.

In many stories, this becomes an excuse for the author to showcase the protagonist’s moves. The men will try to hold up the protagonist, giving him every opportunity to draw down and kill them all with precision headshots, or otherwise go ballistic.

In the real world, McCann turned to face the men, resting his hand on his gun, and said, “Don’t.”

The men backed off.

Heavy hitters do not go to guns whenever there’s a chance to avoid it. They will not act like psychopaths without a good reason for it — and those who do will face the consequences. Heavy hitters avoid, de-escalate, and deter whenever they can. If they have to draw down or go hands-on, it means all other options have failed — and they will unleash hell on the enemy.

Likewise, in stories, there has to be a compelling in-character and in-story reason to unload on someone. Showing off to the reader is not it. bloody-splat-8775057.jpg

Violence has consequences

In another urban fantasy series, the protagonist is a police officer on a task force that handles crimes related to otherworldly creatures. In one sequence, she is walking down the street when she is accosted by four otherworld gangsters. Insults and disrespect follows. She loses her temper, and next thing she knows, she has killed them all. With her bare hands.

The video goes viral on YouTube by the time she returns to the station. She takes a shower, wonders she’s done, then heads off to a stakeout.

The book lost me at that point.

Violence carries a great cost. Masters of violence pay for their knowledge with broken bones, spilled blood and psychic scars. They also have to contend with social repercussions.

If the above scene happened in the real world, there would be a media firestorm. The protagonist would be yanked off the job and must explain herself to Internal Affairs – especially since she initiated the violence. The story would have ended there and then. Nothing of that sort happened in the story; the only consequence was a short conversation with the Police Chief that amounts to nothing at all.

In the First World, societies have laws and mass media. If violence takes place, the protagonist has to be able to justify his actions to the police, or he WILL be tossed into jail. Or worse. If he can’t, then he’ll have to evade police attention somehow. In places where the norms and customs of civilisation do not apply, every act of violence is an excuse for a vendetta. The protagonist may make enemies too powerful to fight. A psychopath who picks on everyone he can would suddenly find himself outnumbered and outgunned. Or be shived in the back at midnight.

A good example of a protagonist who understands the consequences of violence is Barry Eisler’s John Rain. Rain is a hitman who specialises in making deaths look like natural causes or accidents. He is also a judo exponent. He lives a solitary lifestyle, dictated by security measures that any other person would call paranoia, and has very few friends. He has also been wounded multiple times on the job, which affects how he carries himself, the tools he carries, and his mindset.

Rain is a heavy hitter by any measure, but even he can’t escapes the consequences of violence. He mitigates this through personal security, and by being terrifyingly effective.


Unrealistic Violence

A creator’s primary job is to create content that entertains consumers. But too many creators think that the best way to do that is to have flashy moves, complex techniques and sequences, multi-mook takedowns with a single technique, and duels between the major characters.

It just doesn’t work in reality. There are endless numbers of articles and videos criticising unrealistic violence everywhere, so I’m going to take a different tack.

Look at the combat scenes in Taken, John Wick, the live action Rorouni Kenshin films, the Jason Bourne series and the first two Batman movies starring Christian Bale. The scenes are noted for their raw brutality, the simple techniques and the uncompromising vision of violence. The protagonists are skilled, but they live in worlds where a single misstep would send them to the morgue. By careful employment of tactics and techniques, they will pass the gates of fire – plausibly cementing their image as powerful, capable protagonists.

Real world combat doesn’t have bullet time to show off moves. Adrenaline spikes make everyone stronger and clumsier. Complexity leads to confusion; gross motor skills are king. And multi-mook takedowns are rare, if not outright impossible.

Violence with Verisimilitude

To fully engage readers, strive to have violence with verisimilitude. Violence isn’t about showing off. It’s about doing what has to be done to achieve one’s goals, be it survival or otherwise. Violence always carries consequences, and the best way to achieve verisimilitude is to accurately portray both it and its consequences.

This is just a high-level post, providing a bird’s eye view of the situation. In coming weeks and months I will be writing more posts about how to plausibly depict violence in fiction, drilling down into specific aspects. In the meantime, check out Rory Miller’s Violence: A Writer’s Guide and Marc MacYoung’s Writing Violence for more details from people who have bene there and done that.



To 2017: Write Less to Write More

If you’re a writer, nobody cares about how many stories you’ve written. Only about the stories you’ve published.

Ideas and stories are meaningless if they are locked away in a hard drive or scrapbook. They only hold value when they are shared with the world. You’re not an author if you don’t publish your works.

In 2016, I wrote the most number of stories I ever had. In 2016, I also published the fewest number of stories since I became a published writer.

How did that happen?

Half of the answer is that a couple of stories I submitted this year would, with any luck, be published next year. WE BURY FOR OWN, for instance, will be published when Lyonesse goes online in 2017. The other half is that I wrote too much stuff that had to be thrown out. On the order of 500,000 words.

Five. Hundred. Thousand. More than enough for a trilogy and then some.

Those words comprise of a novel, its sequel, and assorted deleted scenes. The deleted parts overwhelmed both stories combined. Worse, I cannot in good conscience publish either story at this time. Despite the months I’ve thrown into them, the hundreds of thousands of words committed to the page, they’re not good enough.

The reason for this is simple: my old writing style just isn’t good enough.

I used to write like a classic pantser: little if any pre-planning, just open the story and pound away at the keys. It worked, mostly, allowing me to create scenes that organically built upon events in previous chapters.

The problem with that approach is at the meta level: there was little time and space dedicated to worldbuilding, setting and character planning. Exactly the wrong thing to do for the stories I was working on.

The stories are hard science fiction. Diamond hard science fiction. Every piece of technology inside the story would be entirely within the realm of modern understanding science. Everything would be an extension of what is known and possible today. That kind of undertaking required copious amounts of research — and ensuring that everything remained consistent.

More than that, the story was a space opera driven by a romance. A completely new genre of writing. One that demanded in-depth knowledge of the human heart, and how every human and faction within the story would believe, feel, think and act.

Pantsing, I’ve discovered, isn’t adequate to the task. I found myself revising scenes over and over and over again, and at the end of it all, feedback from my writers’ group indicated that it still wasn’t good enough.

In 2016, I found that my old style of writing wouldn’t work anymore. Not for the standard I aspire to.

For 2017, I have to do things differently. Writing less to write more.

I went into pantsing because I wanted to write as much and as quickly as I could. That approach won’t work. I intend to spend less time writing and more time planning. More time on worldbuilding, researching concepts and technologies, understanding characters, planning events.

In other words: I plan to spend more time building the foundations and getting things right before I commit to paper.

That should lead to less time spent on revisions and edits down the road. Which means more time working on the next story, and the next, and the next. In the end, what matters isn’t so much the act of writing as writing excellent work, publishing it, and maintaining the drive.

The same approach applies to blogging. For the past month, I’ve been planning my posts, researching them, focusing them on a single topic. My new posts are between 50 to 75 percent shorter than my old ones. The time and energy savings allow me to post more often, leading to more pageviews.

I’ve already experimented with the new approach for a certain story I wrote this month. Initial feedback has been positive, and next year I hope I can share it with you. I also have other writing plans for 2017. More will be revealed as I execute them.

2016 was a year for learning the hard way.

2017 will be the year the writing bears fruit.


5 Writing Lessons from Manga

As a child, I couldn’t understand the appeal of manga. To me, they were simply a different kind of comic book, and comics held little appeal to me. Then, in my teens, English-translated anime took off in Singapore. Almost all of them were adaptations of Japanese manga. I pursued the source material, and found Ghost in the Shell.

That experience led to an explosion of stories: Rurouni Kenshin, Rave Master, Appleseed, Full Metal Alchemist, Ao no Exorcist, Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio, Twin Star Exorcists, Claymore and more. These days I read at least as much manga as I do prose works. Part of that is enjoyment — another part is to study them and apply the lessons learned to my own writing.

On first glance there seems to be little transferability between prose and manga. The former is a written medium, the latter is visual. The former is carried entirely on the strength of its words; the latter combines images, dialogue and exposition into a coherent whole. But both are storytelling media, and in my explorations of manga I have found five lessons that are universal to both.

Concise and Engaging Narration

Dialogue in manga is limited. Being a visual medium, there is only enough room for a handful of lines in every page. Narration must be concise, advance the story and engage the reader.Dialogue has the additional burden of reflecting the speaker’s character. Not everyone can pull a Masamune Shirow and get away with filling entire pages with philosophical exposition without boring the reader.

Similarly, in fiction, narration must also keep readers invested. There is no room for rambling that does not serve the story, and large chunks of exposition without context will just turn readers off. Excellent manga demonstrate economy of words–the same concision writers should aspire to.

Showing, not Telling

Manga is primarily a visual medium. Stories are literally shown to the reader. Mangaka will draw as much as possible–people, settings, actions–using as few words as possible. In excellent manga, exposition is limited to the barest minimum for world-building. Some mangaka will disguise such exposition as dialogue, or simply portray events and have the reader figure out how the world works. In Rave Master, as in many shounen manga, characters tell each other what their weapons or skills can do in the place of creator exposition. BLAME! takes the other approach: almost nobody says anything about the world, forcing the reader to figure things out.

Likewise, instead of simply telling the reader how grand a place is or what someone did, writers should strive to draw a picture with their words. Create an image of a magnificent estate and enormous riches by talking about the marble floor, solid gold sculptures, rare artworks and army of maids, cooks and gardeners. Go in-depth into an action scene, delving into emotions, everybody’s actions and reactions, injuries, and more.

Aesthetics and Worldbuilding

In manga, the setting is a silent character. It sets the tone of the story and gives context to everybody’s actions. Manga achieve this through aesthetics, the accurate and/or authentic portrayals of the story’s setting.

Ghost in the Shell emphasised its cyberpunk nature through juxtaposing gritty streets and sleek skyscrapers, and the use of high technology everywhere. In Twin Star Exorcist, the mundane story occurs in modern-day Japan, but the desperate, magic-fuelled action-packed battles are set in Magano, a parallel world filled with ruins and evil spirits. This dichotomy, especially in the early issues, reinforces the mood of the scene, be it peaceful or adrenaline-packed. Shoukoku no Altair has Mahmut running all over alternate-world Europe and the Middle East, and each country he visits has its own unique architecture and visual design, reinforcing the sense of place.

Aesthetics is the visual manifestation of the world the mangaka is building. It is how the reader grasps the nature of the story world. Similarly, in written fiction, extensive background and setting descriptions gives the reader a sense of place, placing the characters’ actions in context while differentiating the story from other stories.

Character Differentiation

Mangaka need readers to quickly and reliably tell characters apart, especially in busy scenes where many people are acting or talking all at once. Mangaka employ many tricks to do this: unique hairstyles and colour schemes, archetypical behaviours (think the infamous tsundere), signature clothes and weapons, and accents and dialogue quirks. All of these tricks have become tropes and character stereotypes — but that’s because these tricks work.

In prose, writers do not (usually) get the benefit of visually illustrating their characters to give the reader a reference point. Writers must therefore find ways and means to keep each character unique in the reader’s minds. They can use many of the same tricks mangaka employ. Jim Butcher, for instance, inserts physical descriptions into the text of his stories every so often, such as Harry Dresden’s famous coat, to remind readers of what his characters look like.


On average, a weekly manga runs between 15 to 25 pages per issue. Monthly manga usually has 30 to 60. There are exceptions (usually shorter), but bestsellers tend to run between these lengths. To put things in perspective, Western comics are issued monthly, but have similar page counts to weekly manga.

Mangaka must produce an average of 2 to 5 complete pages every day. More if they are working on  multiple series at once. This does not even include storyboarding, editorial input and other corrections.

Unlike Western comics, most manga are in black and white, with the exception of the occasional special full-colour issue. This saves time on inking and colouration. Also, many mangaka have assistants to help with background art and research. Nevertheless, mangaka must consistently produce high-quality work over dozens, even hundreds, of issues–or they will be dropped, and may need to find a new line of work.

Maintaining such a pace requires discipline. Discipline to uphold standards, discipline to do the work, discipline to keep learning and getting better. This is the same discipline writers require: without the discipline to produce regular content, you’re not going to produce good stories.

Manga is as legitimate a storytelling medium as prose, and despite the differences between them, there are many lessons to be learned. The key is to read not as a consumer, but as a creator. Pick apart the stories and characters, discern the thought processes that go into design and worldbuilding and dialogue, understand the creation process, and see what lessons you can apply to your own work.


The Two Kinds of Story Conflict

Conflicts drive drama, and drama drives stories. The heart of every story worth reading is a clash between the protagonist and the antagonist, each seeking opposed goals. Protagonist-antagonist conflicts can be described in two ways: symmetrical and asymmetrical. The type of conflict defines each party’s strategies and the overall direction of the plot.

A symmetrical conflict pits the protagonist’s strength against the antagonist’s, matching two (nearly) evenly-matched parties against each other. This is a contest to see who is the better swordsman, the greater general, the more powerful magician. Both parties are defined by a singular trait, and with this trait they make war on each other.

Fiction has plenty of examples of symmetrical conflicts. Think of the genius detective Sherlock Holmes chasing down James Moriarty, the Napoleon of crime. Sun Wukong the Monkey King versus the Hundred Eyed Demon Lord. Octavian leading the grand coalition of Marat, Alerans and Canim against the hordes of the Vord.

Being similar to each other, both protagonist and antagonist use similar means, be it intelligence, prowess in martial arts, or military might. Holmes detects while Moriarty schemes; Sun pits his magic and his rod against the demon’s own magic and weapons; the united races of the Aleran coalition pitting their furies, beasts and raw power against the Vord’s shapeshifting and relentless consumption. The differences between the protagonist and the antagonist here lie in their goals and how they choose to wield their strengths. Symmetrical conflicts tend to be marked by slugging matches, with both sides battling each other back and forth across time and space.

Asymmetrical conflicts involves one party utilising their strengths against the other’s weakness, and vice versa. Both sides aim to outwit and outmaneuver the other, bringing their powers to bear while minimising their exposure to the enemy’s own. This is the preferred tactic of a much weaker party, since a direct confrontation will destroy them.

This is the CTU seeking out an agile terrorist cell; the seven samurai against the bandit gang, Frodo and his companions against the Ringwraiths and the combined armies of Sauron. The weaker party snipes and runs, or conceals themselves while travelling to their objective; the stronger one attempts to force the weaker party into a decisive confrontation in which they hold all the advantage.

Symmetrical conflicts match strength for strength; asymmetrical conflicts pit the weak against the strong. Yet strength in one field doesn’t necessarily translate into strength in all areas. These terms only provide a high-level view, not necessarily what happens in the story or how the conflict evolves.

Frodo and his companions are woefully outnumbered by hordes of ravening orcs and other evil creatures. However, they each have individual strengths: Frodo’s endurance, Sam’s loyalty, Legolas’ archery, Gandalf’s magic, Gimli’s brute strength and so on. By combining their strengths, they win through their encounters with the forces of evil, evade the all-seeing eye and destroy the One Ring.

Similarly, a symmetrical conflict can be suddenly upset should one party discover the other’s fatal flaw. In the real world, the American military is highly dependent on technology and popular opinion. The Chinese Assassin’s Mace concept aims to neutralise American dominance by knocking out vulnerable satellites, information and economic warfare, and anti-access/area denial weapons to prevent the Americans from deploying their Air Force and Navy assets. Successful deployment of the Assassin’s Mace would give Chinese conventional forces an overwhelming advantage on the battlefield.

This is not to say both types of conflict cannot coexist in the same story. The Lord of the Rings is primarily driven by asymmetrical conflict, but near the end, when the armies of Middle Earth rise against the armies of Sauron, there is room for symmetrical conflict between massive armies. Likewise, in a tale following a superpower conflict, you can have a story about a team of special forces operatives using asymmetrical tactics to undermine the enemy.

The kind of conflict you have is determined by the balance of power between the protagonist and the antagonist. If they are evenly matched, you have a symmetrical conflict. If one is much stronger than the other, the conflict is asymmetrical. If, during the story, the plot significantly empowers or weakens one power, the type of conflict changes, which in turn change how both sides will act and react.

How the conflict plays out drives your characters tactics, actions, behaviours and thought patterns. Think about how they will seek to uncover and exploit their opponent’s weakness, how they will conceal their own weaknesses and plans from their opponent, how they will employ the resources and forces at their command to achieve their goals.

Study your favourite stories. Identify the kind of conflict running through them. Pinpoint the protagonist’s and antagonist’s motives, tactics and resources. See how they try to turn the situation to their advantage, and whether these ideas are unique to their particular flavour of conflict or if they are universal. Study also real-world conflicts. See what strategies and tactics work and what do not. Reflect your new knowledge in your work.

Stories are about truth, and knowing the truth about conflict brings better stories.


Plan Your Antagonist First

People read fiction to escape reality in pseudo-reality. They want to immerse themselves in the protagonist’s adventures, marvel at his derring-do, and cheer as he overcomes the obstacles in his way and attains his goal.

But where would the protagonist be without the antagonist?

The antagonist is the yin to the protagonist’s yang. Without the antagonist, there is no drama, there is no conflict, and there is no plot. The antagonist catalyses the plot, and the protagonist drives the story forward. There can be no murder mystery without a murderer, no space opera without a powerful overlord. The events of the Bible could not have unfurled without the Snake tempting Eve, nor would Star Wars have became a galaxy-spanning epic without the institution of a Galactic Empire.

The antagonist is as important as the protagonist. Like the protagonist, he must be fully-fleshed. To the reader, he exists only in the shadow of the hero, but a poorly-crafted villain creates an unbelievable hero and a ludicrous plot. A hero receives no glory for beating up a wimp, nor would readers believe that a mere basement-dwelling computer geek would summon the dread forces of Hell to achieve his darkest desires of kissing a girl.

When planning a story, start with the antagonist. All stories must start from the beginning, and as the catalyst, his deeds start the ball rolling.

To create your antagonist, you must answer the following questions:

Who is he? What is his name, nationality and job? Who are his superiors, peers, and subordinates? How do they think of him, and does he care?

What drives him? What is his ideology? His motivation? Does he inspire others, and if so, how? What is he comfortable doing, what will he never do, and what falls in between? What does he want?

Why is he doing this? Why does he do the thing that starts the whole story going? What’s in it for him and his allies? How does it affect his enemies? How will it help him achieve his goals?

How does he do what he does? What special talents, traits or resources does he have? What skills does he posses? What are his strengths and weakness? How does he maximise his strengths while minimising exposure while dioing what he does?

Answer these questions and you will build up a complete dossier of the antagonist, making him a believable and powerful threat to the protagonist.

Sauron is the Lord of the Rings. Prizing order above all else, he is the equivalent of a fallen angel, intent on conquering all of Middle-Earth and bending it to his will. He has armies at his command, with a squad of Ringwraiths for special missions, and compared to mortals has overwhelming power. However, he has invested most of his strength in the One Ring, currently missing. He has dispatched his forces to find the Ring…but a lowly hobbit in the middle of nowhere has found it first. And without the Ring, Sauron will be crippled forever.

Walter Peck, by contrast, is a lowly inspector in the Environmental Protection Agency. He upholds the letter of the law and is utterly rigid. After learning of the Ghostbusters’ activities, he realises that they violated multiple environmental regulations–including improper disposal of toxic waste and possession of unauthorised and unregulated particle accelerators–and does everything in his power to stop them.

One antagonist is a supreme evil being, the other is merely an obstructive bureaucrat with a point. Antagonists don’t have to be evil; they just have to oppose the protagonist in some way. They do, however, have to be believable.

Sauron is a supernatural creature; one can ascribe supernatural motives to him, including a desire to dominate the planet. Such a being could believably possess supernatural powers and resources, including the ability to craft mind-control rings and raise armies of barbarian orcs. He also has a supernatural weakness: by investing his power in the One Ring, he has created his Achilles heel, allowing a sufficiently brave and resourceful team of heroes to defeat him.

Peck is a human with human motivations; he is simply out to do his job and prevent an environmental catastrophe in New York City. Being a human, and a minor bureaucrat at that, he only plausibly has access to the kind of power an inspector can possess. Magical powers and grand armies are out of the question. But he is an agent of the law, and since the Ghostbusters are clearly in violation of environmental regulations, he can shut them down.

Once you know who your antagonist is, you know what he can do and what resources he has available. You know what he wants, how he can get what he wants, and what he will do to get what he wants. This action of getting what he wants is the spark that sets the story into motion.

Know your enemy, know yourself, and you will a hundred battles. In this case, know your antagonist, know your protagonist, and you will craft a masterpiece.